Giving the rich the bum's rush

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Fox's newest reality experiment is a modern-day twist on "The Prince and the Pauper."

The network is set to announce "Secret Millionaire," a new series from RDF USA in which wealthy benefactors go undercover in impoverished neighborhoods. For about 10 days, a multimillionaire meets financially destitute locals and experiences what it's like to live on a meager budget for the first time in their lives. At the show's conclusion, the millionaire reveals his true identity to the community and gives a minimum of $100,000 of his own money to at least one deserving person.

"How often do we see somebody who's homeless on the street and wonder what it would be like to live like that?" Fox president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell asked. "Whereas the superwealthy are so detached from that experience. This is a really clever conceit and has a great emotional arc to it."

Fox ordered six episodes of the hourlong series. The network plans to unveil the show Thursday at its upfront presentation to advertisers in New York. "Secret Millionaire" is based on a Channel 4 U.K. hit from RDF Media that has aired for two seasons, is ordered for a third and won the prestigious Rose d'Or award in 2007 for best reality series.

"It's going to be huge," said Chris Coelen, CEO of RDF USA ("Don't Forget the Lyrics," "Wife Swap"). "It's got a 'fish out of water' element — which is always fun — and it's got the inspirational stories about what these people are doing in their communities. And then there's an unbelievable emotional payoff."

"Secret Millionaire" producers sought participants with assets in "triple-digit-million range" who have lived sheltered lives. Most are men, but not all. Each episode tracks two story lines: the millionaire's culture shock as he or she is immersed in poverty and the rags-to-riches fairy tale of struggling individuals who gain an unexpected financial windfall. The millionaires are required to give at least $100,000 and might split the reward among several people.

Philanthropic reality shows have been increasingly popular the past couple of years, led by ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and, most recently, "Oprah's Big Give." Yet some attempts to capitalize on them have flopped, such as NBC's "Three Wishes" and ABC's "The Benefactor."

"Aspiration for the sake of aspiration does not work," Darnell said. "But this has a very compelling concept."

Fox's reality efforts have been on roll this past year. Although top series "American Idol" has suffered recent ratings erosion, freshman show "The Moment of Truth" was the season's top-rated new series and veteran summer program "Hell's Kitchen" has enjoyed record-setting viewership by running in-season.

Yet with "Secret Millionaire" helping the poor and Fox's recent reality pilot "Bad Dads" tracking down deadbeat parents, the network's oft-notorious reality efforts have recently taken a surprisingly altruistic turn.

"This show is one of my last few shots at redemption," said Darnell, whose hits include "Joe Millionaire" and "Temptation Island."

Joking aside, Darnell advised not to read anything into his recent feel-good picks. Like "Truth," Darnell said "Secret Millionaire" is simply good business.

"There's no method to the madness," Darnell said. "I purchase whatever I think will work." (partialdiff)
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